Sailors’ history focus of talk

Williams-at-Mystic institution Glenn Gordinier kicked off 25th anniversary festivities for the program this past Wednesday afternoon in Chemistry room 202, lecturing to a diverse crowd of students and faculty.

Entitled “Outposts in Gomorrah: The Waterfronts of America in the Age of Reform,” the talk addressed early and mid-19th century efforts at moral leadership in the libertine sailor towns across the nation’s waterfronts.

The lecture is the first in a series of eight talks this year that will commemorate the Williams-at-Mystic experiential learning program, which turns a quarter-century old this fall. Three additional lectures will be held at the College this semester, and then the setting will shift to Mystic Seaport, Conn. for four more talks in the spring.

Gordinier is the Robert G. Albion historian at the seaport in Mystic, having taught maritime history to students at the College since 1989. He has held the position of senior historian at the Mystic Seaport museum since the late 1970s, and is currently the co-director of the Munson Institute, which co-ordinates summer programs at the museum.

After introductory remarks from Tom Wintner ’93, associate dean of the faculty, Gordinier launched into an in-depth analysis of his topic – the urban landscape faced by sea-going workers in the early 1800s. With powerful prose, Gordinier painted a picture of a nation ripe for reform, citing the overwhelming influence of the Second Great Awakening in religious life in America. According to Gordinier, this as well as the considerable popularity of the Romantic and Transcendentalist movements made for a society more interested in the idea of charity than ever.

“In the history of the world the doctrine of Reform had never such scope as at the present hour,” Gordinier said, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson. “It was the radical comprehensiveness of these movements that allowed them to enjoy their unprecedented success.”

That present hour, as depicted by Gordinier, was a time in which sailors were easy targets for all those who wished to take advantage of their uneducated and vulnerable state. “Landsharks,” boarding houses, equipment outfitters, prostitutes, and other such institutions were able to tempt young and helpless sailors from the moment they stepped onshore, ensnaring them in schemes designed to relieve the seamen of their meager wages.

With a variety of rare and insightful slides at his disposal, Gordinier managed to impress upon the audience the extent of the poverty and lawlessness that reigned in coastal towns. A number of the more notorious locales were singled out for special treatment and visual inspection, such as New York City’s South and Water Streets, or San Francisco’s Battery and Montgomery.

Perhaps most illuminating were Gordinier’s examples of once-famous local businesses on shore that catered to both the seafaring crowd and like-minded revelers. These included the Water St. tavern of John Allen – widely referred to as “The Wickedest Man in New York – and the Bella Union of Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, a house of ill repute whose street flyers advertised for “entertainment for full-grown people.”

“Who has not heard of the Bella Union?” posited a columnist in 1869, quoted by Gordinier. “To the furthest reaches of the countryside, the lonest antique miner, with a glint in eye, has heard of the Union, licentious and profane as ever.”

To counteract these unwholesome influences, a number of religious and secular groups aimed at the betterment of the seafaring condition were formed throughout the 19th century, the first example of which was the incorporation of the Boston Seamen’s Organization in 1812. According to Gordinier, this was a trend that continued throughout the decades, culminating in the foundation of the well-heeled and influential American Seamen’s Friend Society.

The lecture addressed the wide variety of tactics used by these organizations to aid sailors, ranging from simple ecclesiastical measures of distributing Bibles, to wide-scale construction campaigns. The latter method involved the construction of Sailor’s Houses, which by the latter part of the century could be seen in nearly every seaport in the nation, offering safe, alcohol-free accommodation exclusively to sailors.

The “radical comprehensiveness” alluded to by Gordinier was herein most apparent – the scope of these houses was not only impressive in geographic terms, but also within each particular structure. For example, houses in larger ports contained not just lodgings, but also additional conveniences such as sailor’s banks, clothing stores, reading rooms, and often a Seamen’s Exchange, from which a sailor could obtain non-abusive, well-paid jobs at sea.